Vol. 3 | The Color Line | Felicity Stone-Richards

The Color Line: Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségrégation,
Paris, Quai Branly, 04 October 2016 – 15 January 2017
/ Felicity Stone-Richards

The Paris exhibition, The Color Line: Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségrégation, takes its name from the title of Frederick Douglass’ essay published in 1881 where Douglass states the way in which the person of African descent is an inescapable and permanent target, the Jean Valjean of American society: “At one time we are told that the people in some of the towns of Yorkshire cherished a prejudice so strong and violent against strangers and foreigners that one who ventured to pass through their streets would be pelted with stones. Of all the races and varieties of men which have suffered from this feeling, the colored people of this country have endured most. They can resort to no disguises which will enable them to escape its deadly aim. They carry in front the evidence which marks them for persecution.”1Frederick Douglass, “The Color Line,” The North American Review, vol 132, no. 295 (June, 1888), 568.The phrase the color line then came into wider usage following W.E.B. Dubois’ use of the term in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) where Du Bois declared that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The color line referred to the racial segregation that persisted in the United States, despite the abolition of slavery in 1865. It is with this frame of mind that the exhibition The Color Line invites the viewer in, as it walked us through the work of roughly a hundred years of Black American artists, writers, thinkers, and activists that each in their own way sought to comprehend, challenge, and dismantle the oppressive racial system of the United States under which they lived.

Aesthetically, The Color Line was a beautifully organized exhibition. Trying to fit in everything from the history of segregation and civil rights to the art and literature produced by Black Americans could have left us with a space that felt overly stuffed and clunky, instead, glass cabinets of novels and essays sat comfortably below or alongside images of racist posters and news clippings. A video clip of Bert Williams in the short film A Natural Born Gambler (1916), a role which he played in Blackface despite already being Black, was perfectly placed between posters of white vaudeville actors in Blackface.


This was a truly extraordinary assembly of documents and works: posters from the nineteenth century, including the famed 1883 poster Distinguished Colored Men, a lithograph featuring images of Douglass and other renowned Black scholars and professionals;2Distinguished Colored Men, 1883, lithograph, A. Mueller & Co, presented in Richard J Powell, “Les âmes illustrées,” The Color Line: Les … clippings from The North Star, the newspaper for which Douglass was an editor; classic movie posters of Paul Robeson and Herbert Jeffrey; photographs from the early twentieth century of Black Air force pilots, segregated staircases, Black women tailors, and workers’ protests. These were all displayed in combination with works of art in paintings, sculptures, and ink drawings from the twentieth century. The exhibition brought together works on loan from more than three-dozen collections in the United States, as well as collections from France and Switzerland. The catalogue accompanying the show is very handsome and well put together, as well as being an invaluable resource, offering a detailed sociological context for much of the work on display.

Occasionally, however, one did get the impression that there was simply too much to take in, and this was felt most keenly in the descriptions of the work presented. Sometimes one was given detailed historical context for the work on display: such as being given the history of Blackface in vaudeville, and Bert Williams’ subversion of this by using Blackface himself; or being given the history of lynching while in a corner with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing in the background. But at most times this depth was not available to many of the works we were presented with. With the sheer amount of work on exhibit, to try and provide historical context for every article, every book, every record, would have been impossible - a logistical and time-consuming nightmare. That being said, it may have been worth paring back some of the collection on display in order to have given more depth to what was there. In certain cases the historical gap was keenly felt – for example, when viewing Oliver Harrington’s satirical cartoon depicting a school bus of Black children being lynched.

As an American citizen educated in Chicago there are many things that are part of my basic knowledge of American history, but as this was a French exhibition, there can be no reasonable belief that the French possess the same cultural knowledge of Black American history that Americans do. When, for example, we were presented with Oliver W. Harrington’s cartoon one readily grasped the historical significance of lynching, but not of the significance of the 1954 case, Brown vs Board of Education, which declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. The result of this Supreme Court case, as all Americans know from civics lessons, was the bussing of Black children to white schools in more affluent neighborhoods. There is a reason Harrington drew a mob lynching a bus; it was not simply attacking the practice of lynching, but the behavior of adult white people intimidating and attacking Black children going to school after the Brown vs Board of Education ruling. Without the historical context of the cartoon, the power of the image is somewhat muted.

The same was true for the dozens of books and vinyl records that we see on display. To a French visitor that has probably never heard of these books or authors, much less read them, it is not enough that one merely be presented with the object, as if merely to see the cover of Chester Himes’ Cast The First Stone (1952) would allow one to understand the significance of Himes’ work, not merely as a Black novelist, but as a writer of Black police fiction.  To be presented with Langston Hughes’ Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) does not elicit the same thought-process as seeing a painting for the first time, since a painting invites an experience in the moment – even if delayed - whereas a document does not. Certainly, as I have said previously, one cannot expand on everything, but there is something to be said on the challenges of presenting works that are not principally visual in a purely visual manner: we did not understand anything about such documents, and seeing them presented in a purely visual way at best sparked a curiosity that may have a visitor following up after they leave the show, but the show itself did not offer clarity on the function of such documentation.

The Color Line exhibition contained a far more egregious and inexcusable fault, and that was the near complete lack of Black women and Black queer representation. We were given so much information on the influence and work of Frederick Douglass combatting slavery and segregation, but we were not presented, even in passing, with his contemporary Sojourner Truth and her famed speech in 1851, “Ain’t I a Woman,” a cry of desperation at the treatment of Black women. Booker T. Washington was given expansive space, both in the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, but we were given no history of Ida B Wells and her extraordinary campaign against lynching in the 1890s, nor were there any mentions of her work promoting women’s suffrage. On display, we were presented with what is perhaps James Baldwin’s most well-known text, The Fire Next Time (1963), but this is all we saw of him, lost in a sea of other Black authors, with no mention of his status as one of the most important Black queer writers, and indeed one of the most important writers, that America has produced. It seemed especially galling that Baldwin’s position not be more promoted in the city that he chose to call his home, from the age of twenty-four, fleeing America’s racial and homophobic oppression; a city that Baldwin, in an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1968, personally cited as the reason he could develop into the writer that he became: “You may die. And it’s very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you. The years in Paris did one thing for me: they released me from that particular social terror, which was not the paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger, visible in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody.”3James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (United Kingdom: Penguin Random House UK), 88. One could even have chosen to display his work and history alongside the work of a contemporary Black queer writer such as Hilton Als, to showcase his influence and the evolution of Black queer intellectuals.4Writing on Flannery O’Connor, Als waxes lyrical on what could have been from a meeting between Baldwin and O’Connor: “Had O’Connor and …

Walking through the history of civil rights, we met the usual suspects of great leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali. The only women that were really given space to breathe were Rosa Parks and Billie Holiday, and the latter was only talked of in reference to her song “Strange Fruit,” within the context of lynching, and not within the context of her own extraordinary influence on American music. Angela Davis stared at us, formidable and proud, from her FBI wanted poster, but we knew nothing as to why this woman was so important, why she was a target of the FBI – neither the exhibit nor the catalogue enlightened us on this matter. Baldwin, Davis, King, Malcom X, many Black civil rights activists, indeed many activists in general, had been spied on, had their phones tapped and were investigated by the FBI. To publicly and consistently articulate the failures of the American system as it concerned minorities, as it concerned women and workers was sufficient to make one a Person of Interest for the FBI - and needless to say if one was a Black Marxist, the suspicion would increase tenfold. The French audience could not have guessed this. And what could be made of our female writers? How can we be presented with a history of civil rights and Black expression under segregation and not be presented with the works and history of Maya Angelou’s tireless activism, or her book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); or Ntozake Shange, writer of For Colored Girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976); or Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (1982)?

As this point, I must cease listing, for I fear ten dozen catalogues could be filled with what was left out of women’s cultural and political contribution to Black American political and cultural liberation. It was extremely disappointing even when reading through the catalogue to see so little written on Black women. David Bindman in his article “Le 'New Negro' et la Harlem Renaissance,” makes use of imagery that points to the existence of Black female Marxists, using Sadie Iole Daniel’s poster Women Builders. Yet throughout this essay on the communication and collaboration that occurred between the intellectuals, artists, and jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Marxists and the budding Soviet Union, you would be hard pressed to find much mention of Black women. While the focus of the piece lies primarily with an exploration of Langston Hughes’ work and his interaction with the Soviet Union, and Aaron Douglas’ work and his eventual conversion to Marxism, there are of course many references to other Black thinkers and musicians. The only woman to be mentioned, Zora Neal Hurston, is made in passing, on the first page.5Cf. David Bindman, “Le ‘New Negro’ et la Harlem Renaissance,” in The Color Line: Les Artistes Africains-Américains et la Ségregation …  There is no excuse for such oversight. Indeed, to call this an oversight is to be too forgiving. The manner in which this exhibition was curated reinforces a sanitized male-led narrative of Black intellectual and cultural history and civil rights history that is deeply disappointing, harmful, and insulting. This exhibition felt like it would fit within the pages of my high school history textbooks, with only slightly more nuances on the divisions and complexities of Black civil rights history. It is all the more disappointing given that we are in the midst of a new civil rights movement shining a light on previously marginalized narratives: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was here relegated to less than a footnote within the larger civil rights narrative. In the catalogue, the only mention we have of it is an image of the Time magazine cover of 2015 with BLACK LIVES MATTER emblazoned on the front.6Cf. Manthia Diawara, “Contemporains et Africains-Américains,” in The Color Line: Les Artistes Africains-Americains et la Ségregation (Paris: …

In sidelining the contribution of Black women, this exhibition missed a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on a woman of extraordinary importance to the construction of contemporary social movements like BLM - Ella Baker. Baker was a colleague and contemporary of Martin Luther King; she was also a key organizer in many social groups from the 1930s onwards. In particular, she was essential to the establishment of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s; more importantly, she was an outspoken critic of the hierarchical, mostly male-dominated leadership of the Civil Rights movement. She consistently engaged working class Black people and Black women, and sought to involve them in crafting solutions to the problems that affected them. While Baker in no way rejected the idea of leaders, she rejected the image of a handful of Black leaders dictating to and speaking exclusively for the masses. Baker’s inclusive leadership approach has been drawn on and studied by the leaders of contemporary activist movements including BLM. Sadly, as there was no real exploration of the historic movements and social tactics led by Black women, there could be no examination of their essential influence on contemporary activist practices. BLM, led by queer Black women, is a direct repudiation of the 1960s Civil Rights narrative that sidelined the plight of Black women and queer Black people and ignored the role these people played in enriching Black culture and fighting for Black rights - a position this exhibition, however unintentionally, has reinforced for a French audience.

The vast majority of the French reviews concerning the show have been overwhelmingly positive. What critique there is focuses on what I mentioned earlier concerning the sheer amount of works to digest. Some have pointed out that it is somewhat disappointing that the show did not engage more with the color line as it has evolved into the twenty-first century, but none appears to have pointed to the fundamental flaw in the exhibition, namely, that it occludes the fact that Black women were a force in their conflict with the American Jim Crow system of domination equal to and in some respects greater than men. The American part of me can hardly be surprised at this dismissal of Black women, but the Francophone side, the side with a Francophone European family which has resided in Paris, the side that knows French culture and intellectual history intimately, this side feels betrayed. To say that certain aspects of French culture, both elite white and Black, have been enamored with Black American culture for some time is hardly controversial. That France has been exposed for some time to great Black artists, musicians, and thinkers who have chosen to call France their home from the likes of Josephine Baker to James Baldwin is not news. And this cultural exchange combined with an outsider’s perspective of America, has produced some great critiques and powerful thinking in return. And it is in light of this that I found myself deeply confused by what I was exposed to in The Color Line exhibition. A Paris exhibition on “African American Artists and Segregation” was capable of so much more.